WORLD CINEMA: En La Palma De Tu Mano (1951)

For Noirvember’s WORLD CINEMA, we travel all the way to Mexico for a dose of clairvoyance and melodrama, with En La Palma De Tu Mano (In the Palm of Your Hand), a Roberto Gavaldón film noir from their own Golden Age.

Arturo de Córdova plays Jaime Karin, a clairvoyant and scam artist who uses his girlfriend Clara (Carmen Montejo) to get the gossip about everyone in town so he can use it to his advantage. When he learns that the wealthy Vittorio Romano has died, he befriends his widow Ada (Leticia Palma) and… you can guess how this goes.

In the Palm of Your Hand is a crisp-looking melodrama, with a suave and charming protagonist, a scheming femme fatale and a very, very tragic ending. Though not entirely unpredictable, it is still incredibly enjoyable nonetheless, with quite a few moments that just scream film noir. The scene in which Karin and Ada are stopped by the police, in particular, just gets more and more tense as it goes on and it is probably the best moment in the whole film – massive Decoy (1946) vibes! Karin’s friendship with an illiterate old woman whose son is in the military is used as a way of showing his caring side, a really nice touch which proves to be effective as we end up sort of sympathizing with him. Towards the end of the film, he has reached his limit and realizes he must pay for what he’s done and we certainly feel for him. Film noir is filled with these morally ambiguous characters and Karin is right up there with the rest of them.

Long considered to be one of Mexico’s greatest ever films noir, In the Palm of Your Hand won the Ariel Award for *takes deep breath* Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Story (Luis Spota), Cinematography, Editing, Sound and Set Design. Not bad, huh? #Noirvember

The Distraction Blogathon – Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and the glowing box…

I’ve been flirting with the idea of taking this blogging thing to a whole new level – no, not podcasts. YouTube. ‘Cause I’m a visual person, you see. And while there are tons of classic movie channels and content on YouTube, something that hardly ever gets talked about are the screenplays of some of those classics. Sure, Casablanca and Citizen Kane get talked about to death – is it weird that I pride myself in never having talked about them at all here on the Garden? I mean, what could I possibly say at this point that every Tom, Dick and Harry hasn’t already said? – but what about those poor suckers that don’t get a chance? Personally, I’m amazed Kiss Me Deadly (1955, dir. Robert Aldrich) doesn’t come up more often. And because this is Noirvember, I shall rectify that. And because this is a Red Herrings and MacGuffins-themed blogathon hosted by my friend Rebecca at Taking up Room, I shall rectify that even more. Bring on A. I. Bezzerides! Bring on the glowing box that everyone’s been homage-ing for years (lookin’ at you, Tarantino)! Let’s go!

We’ve talked about Bezzerides here on the Garden, on the much-missed (or is it just me?) SCREENPLAY BY series. His greatest and best-known achievement is, of course, Kiss Me Deadly and one of the things that makes it great is Bezzerides’ tight screenplay, which moves along beautifully, edging ever closer to that great twist. This is where we start off: a woman (Cloris Leachman in her film debut) runs down the road wearing only a trench-coat in one of film noir’s greatest openings. She stops a car, driven by Detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker at his coolest), gets in, the opening credits roll… downwards… and then they crash, and she dies. But wait, it’s not quite that simple… You see, some guys railroad them, then torture her to death as Hammer loses consciousness. Before all of this, though, she tells Mike her name is Christina and to ‘remember’ her. What follows is typical film noir: anti-hero Hammer hounds the streets of Los Angeles looking for any clues as to who this Christina woman was and what she meant by ‘remember me’, he meets dodgy characters with cool names, he gets sent around town to all these places looking for anything that might be of use, he almost gets shot by Christina’s roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) and he even gets to punch Jack Lambert at a pool party. He knows that there is something big connected to this Christina… something someone knows about but nobody’s telling. And then, just as we thought we were watching just another noir, Kiss Me Deadly gives us one of the greatest shock twists of all time.

Velda (Maxine Cooper), Hammer’s girlfriend and secretary, mentions the great Whatsit about an hour into the film and we soon learn that it comes in the form of a mysterious box containing… radioactive material. It is here that Kiss Me Deadly goes from being a noir with a familiar formula of ‘we don’t know what we’re looking for but we know we gotta find it’ to an allegory for all that American society feared in 1955. The interesting overlapping of the classic noir period and futuristic Sci-fi dystopia couldn’t have come at a better (or worse?) time and though Bezzerides himself admits that his screenplay was not, in fact, a metaphor for the whole McCarthy situation, one can’t be blamed for assuming so. With its nihilist and cynical tone, Kiss Me Deadly starts with paranoia and ends with paranoia. From the presumed femme fatale being chased by the bad guys, to the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. It’s a fun one, Kiss Me Deadly… For more entries on the Distraction blogathon, click here!

Overlooked and Underrated: Film Noir’s unsung heroes, villains and in-betweeners

Happy Noirvember to all of you dames and misters out there in the dark! This year, I thought I’d do something a little different. There’s a big blogathon coming up and WORLD CINEMA will logically be featuring a noir, so for Noirvember’s first post, I wanted to give a little shout out to just SOME of the characters and performances that I’ve enjoyed over the years that don’t seem to get a whole lot of attention. So, obviously, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity won’t be here. Here’s to the unsung heroes, villains and in-betweeners!

Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, dir. Otto Preminger) – Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of the most ingenious noirs out there and Dana Andrews’ Mark Dixon is a delicious anti-hero: a troubled cop who must come to terms with the fact that his own father was a crooked cop himself and that he must do everything he can not to end up like him. He almost manages, until one night, when everything goes wrong…

Richard Basehart in He Walked by Night (1948, dir. Alfred Werker) – I wrote about this amazing film a few years ago and referred to Basehart’s Roy Morgan as an impenetrable psychopath. A smart, resourceful and mysterious killer who manages to outsmart the cops as they chase him around the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a quiet performance which, in 1940s noir, was slightly rare and its calmness is its strength. Basehart is on top form in this.

Louis Calhern in The Asphalt Jungle (1950, dir. John Huston) – The wealthy lawyer in one of cinema’s most iconic heist operations, Alonzo D. Emmerich is a calm and calculating man and Calhern delivers a nuanced and restrained performance that kind of almost breaks your heart, even though it shouldn’t. He was Oscar-nominated that year for The Magnificent Yankee (1950, dir. John Sturges), so understandably went un-nominated for Jungle, but I maintain that he should have been. 

Jean Gillie in Decoy (1946, dir. Jack Bernhard) – I talked about Jean Gillie’s performance in this film a few years ago and I mentioned that I’ve long considered Margot Shelby, the mastermind behind one of the most far-fetched plots in any noir, to be a nuanced anti-heroine, rather than a villain or a femme fatale. She’s a fascinating, endlessly analysable, double-crossing badass.

Dennis O’Keefe in T-Men (1947, dir. Anthony Mann) – As I’ve said a few times, I think T-Men is the tensest of ALL noirs. Two Treasury men go undercover to bring down a notorious counterfeit ring – what could go wrong, right? The brief friendship between both of them is quite sweet and, as the tension builds, it slowly breaks your heart… This is a far cry from O’Keefe’s Joe Sullivan, the charming, two-timing cad from Raw Deal (1948, Mann).

Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Sam Fuller) – One of Thelma Ritter’s six (!) Oscar nominations, Pickup on South Street’s police informant Moe is a smart, endearing, wise-cracking woman whose exit is still one of the most heart-breaking I’ve ever seen…

And on that happy note, Happy Noirvember and stay tuned!

CMBA’s Laughter is the Best Medicine blogathon: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

The wonderful silliness of the ‘Abbott and Costello Meet…’ series of films is an absolute joy to behold! And because this is still Horror Month, I thought I would combine the two, comedy and horror, for the second Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon of 2021, Laughter is the Best Medicine, and talk about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, dir. Charles Barton)!

The plot is very simple: at a railway station, baggage clerks Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) receive a call from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) about a shipment for something called McDougal’s House of Horrors. Talbot then turns into the Wolf Man, obviously, and Wilbur thinks the whole thing is joke. But when McDougal asks for the shipment to be personally delivered to his wax museum, Chick and Wilbur come across a horror movie scenario, involving Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and a whoooole lot of misunderstandings.

Filled with hilarious one-liners, slapstick moments and a heavy dose of dramatic irony, this was the first in a series of movies in which the beloved comedy duo meet several of the Universal monsters and boy, did it start something great! Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a hodgepodge of pop culture references, increasingly absurd situations and familiar horror and comedy tropes which, amazingly, work incredibly well together. Weirdly, Costello supposedly didn’t like the script at all, saying his child could have written something better, but later changed his mind when director Charles Barton was added to the project. Boris Karloff, on the other hand, refused to play the Monster again, but agreed to promote the film instead, which was nice of him. Luckily, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr were on board! It’s actually amazing that this whole thing even happened in the first place. A genius idea, I have to say. Click on the link above for more Laughter is the Best Medicine entries!

WORLD CINEMA: I Vampiri (1957)

Not going to lie, picking a horror film for the WORLD CINEMA series wasn’t easy. There are too many great ones that I have already talked about, like Les Diaboliques (1955) or Nosferatu (1922), obvious classics that other bloggers, YouTubers and podcasters have already reviewed countless times, or I just couldn’t make up my mind regarding the remaining ones. Ultimately, I went with Italy’s first horror picture of the sound era, I Vampiri (1957, dir. Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava).

Set in Paris, despite being an Italian film, I Vampiri starts off quite abruptly, as the body of a young woman is found floating in the river. In the next scene, the coroner explains that she has been drained of all her blood, like the previous victims. We are dealing with a serial killer that the Parisian press has nicknamed ‘the Vampire’, one that journalist Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is obsessed with, despite being told repeatedly to drop the case. It is Lantin himself who guides us through I Vampiri, the most reliable character in this beautiful mess of a film.

It is probably safe to say that I Vampiri’s place in film history is more significant than its actual effectiveness as a horror film. That despite its sellable plot with an admittedly good twist, it is too busy being too many things at once for any of them to be explored thoroughly. It goes from Horror, to Gothic, to police procedural, to romantic drama involving Lantin and the alluring Gisele du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale), to family drama, back to horror, while trying to keep its elements in place. The behind-the-scenes antics, with then-cinematographer Mario Bava stepping in to complete the film after Freda realized he couldn’t make it in just a few days like he said he would, may have contributed to its shambolic nature, but this also may have been a case of ‘going all out’ knowing what was at stake – Italy had yet to produce a big horror sound picture.

Yet, despite its lack of sense of direction at times, it somehow manages to pull itself together in the end and, all in all, I Vampiri is a perfectly enjoyable film, with a good, if misused, plot, gorgeous cinematography and striking special effects – the climactic moments are rather fascinating to watch. An interesting study on what was to come, particularly with Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) as well the entire Italian horror genre, and a good one at that.

The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s horrifying masterpiece

Can you believe it’s October already? I certainly can’t. But you know what that means. Horror Month is here! And we kick off this year’s celebrations with Robert Mitchum’s terrifying turn as the Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). But before we go any further, I must confess something: I cannot stand Shelley Winters. There I said it. Been sitting on that for 15 years. Some actors grow on me, some don’t. She never has. And yes, I’ll acknowledge that she has her moments – you don’t win two Best Supporting Actress Oscars if you don’t – but she just doesn’t do it for me and I can’t quite figure out why. So I’ll refrain from going too deep into her contribution to this film, which, again, I acknowledge is good and needed, and instead I’ll focus on the man of the hour.

Robert Mitchum plays the utterly wicked Harry Powell, a preacher who preys on women, marries them, then kills them. And when he finds out that Ben Harper (Peter Graves), the man he’s sharing a prison cell with, has hidden money somewhere in West Virginia, his wife, Willa Harper (Winters), becomes his next victim. After Ben’s execution and Powell’s release, he goes after Wilma and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce)…

Based on the Davis Grubb novel of the same name, and adapted by James Agee, Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a truly frightening tale from start to finish. From Walter Schumann’s eerie, ominous music, cut off by Lillian Gish’s lovely voice in the opening narration, to her ‘duet’ with Powell in the name of good and evil, the film explores contrasts stunningly. The LOVE-HATE thing is now, of course, iconic and endlessly re-created, but its irony still stands and makes its point beautifully, even if we’ve seen it a million times. Laughton’s and cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s blunt use of horror tropes – the lighting, the shadows, good vs evil – is also effective and makes for one incredibly visually striking film, almost like something you’d see in a True Crime documentary these days (Willa at the bottom of the river, anyone?). And Harry Powell… I mean, has Mitchum ever been this… uncool? Actually, I take that back. Even as one of cinema’s most terrifying characters, he still manages to be cool (ish). Because of course he does. Not to mention that Powell’s evil ways can only come to fruition because of his enormous charm. Powell is clearly a narcissist, on top of being a psychopathic serial killer. But he’s not cool-cool, Robert Mitchum-cool that is, and that’s why his performance is so great. And if he can pop into the Horror celebrations for once, instead of next month’s Noir festivities, then that shows you how versatile he really was. And yes, some have claimed that The Night of the Hunter has noir elements here and there, and obviously it does, but out of the two, it is a lot more horrifying than anything else. And it stays right here. Happy Horror Month, everyone!

WORLD CINEMA: Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1958)

Granted, it’s a 12-minute short so we don’t get to look at Jean-Paul Belmondo for as long as we’d like. Granted, his voice is dubbed by director Jean-Luc Godard so we don’t get to listen to him either. And yeah, after the devastating news of his death earlier this month, I could have easily chosen his most iconic performance, in Godard’s Breathless (1960) or any of his films with best friend Alain Delon. But everybody’s been doing that. So I decided to go for the short film Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (Charlotte et son Jules) for this month’s WORLD CINEMA instead.

In this poignant tribute to Jean Cocteau, the boyfriend, played by Belmondo, berates his ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Anne Collette) upon her return home one afternoon. Everything from their relationship to her carefree behavior to all the men who want to sleep with her and the filmmaker who she is indeed sleeping with. All the while, Charlotte remains silent and aloof, casually entertaining herself with a few things around the house while he rants. The conclusion is a rather funny one, even though most of the film’s twelve minutes are spent in this Parisian apartment as we listen to him go on and on and on, going from one extreme to another, to the extent that it may be uncomfortable at times. Still, this early Godard flick shows us exactly why Belmondo remains one of cinema’s coolest cats. With his natural charm, a rough-around-the-edges touch about him, his bedroom eyes and luscious lips as well as his general swagger and natural acting ability, it’s easy to why Jean-Paul Belmondo was destined to be a star. Indeed, a year later, he was. No doubt he’s charming everyone in Celebrity Heaven as we speak.

The beauty of Dark Suburbia and Douglas Sirk

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Medium about my 30 favorite Cold Case episodes of all time and, coming in at number 30 was The Brush Man (Season 6, episode 14), in which I referred to its main plot device as my favorite film and TV trope: the perfect suburban neighborhood with its dark secrets lurking underneath. This is, of course, an almost tired trope at this point, but it still stands.

Dark Suburbia began making itself known in the 1940s and 50s and there was, of course, a very good reason for it. The war had just ended and people wanted to get back on their feet. The devastation that came with it, on so many levels, was enough for people to want to try and rebuild themselves as well as their society, economically, socially and emotionally. And nothing proved to be easier or more appealing than moving to the beautiful green suburbs in order to make a life for themselves with some semblance of control over their image and welfare. And in the hands of, most prominently, director Douglas Sirk, this seems like a never-ending vacation, with Jane Wyman’s beautifully lit face guiding us through her hopes and dreams as a middle-aged widow who falls in love with Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows (1956), or… the exact same thing in Magnificent Obsession (1954). But more than the stunning cinematography or Wyman and Hudson’s stunning faces or indeed Lana Turner’s in Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk’s films told a deeper story than they seemed to let on. The fluff around them wasn’t so much style over substance as it was style on top of substance, you know, to get the point across. The futility, insipidness and impossible standards of the perfect life in the perfect neighborhood could only go so far before it all starts to fall apart: friendly neighbors become enemies, secrets come out, mistakes get scrutinized, you name it. What better way to make your point about society’s shortcomings than by showing its superficiality unashamedly? And the audience, to a certain extent, seemed to understand this. The critics, for the most part, didn’t. Sirk’s films were big box office draws, yes, but gorgeous melodramas with a message and ‘female-led’ plots – though everybody could relate to them, which was very much the point – weren’t big with critics. Which is ironic, in and of itself… The point is, Sirk didn’t deserve it. If Frank Capra can tell the same story about the everyday man caught up in a world too big for him time and again and be poignantly relevant, then Douglas Sirk can hold up a mirror to society with Russell Metty’s over-the-top cinematography to back him up.

These days, Dark Suburbia is still one of those ‘go to’ tropes. Because it works. The suburbs are the perfect backdrop to all that the human heart desires. They are the perfect tool for the necessary conflict and the perfect contrast to the ugliness of man. If done correctly, it is one of the most endlessly fascinating plot devices, with so much in it, so many angles, so many possibilities… Take 1940s noirs like Fallen Angel (1945) or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), nearly every horror film from the 70s onwards, Todd Haynes’ filmography, or the premise of Twin Peaks and Stranger Things. They all have a different take on it, but all of them come from the same place. And all these years later, Douglas Sirk’s original Dark Suburbia is still the purest and most straight-forward use of the trope in film, its message still resonating with audiences to this day. Of all the misunderstood directors of yesteryear who are finally getting their due amidst the onslaught of new film critics, bloggers and reviewers, Douglas Sirk makes the most sense.

WORLD CINEMA: Late Spring (1949)

For this month’s WORLD CINEMA, we go to Japan with one of Yasujiro Ozu’s greatest films, Late Spring (1949). A beautiful, sweet, simple tale with some of the greatest emotional depth ever put to film, Late Spring is the first film in the Noriko trilogy.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a 27-year-old single woman who lives at home with her father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). Everybody, including her aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura), says it’s time for her to get married and settle down, but Noriko wants to stay at home and take care of her father instead.

Not an uncommon theme for films of the era, Late Spring deals with Noriko’s plight in a way that feels fresh, genuine and compassionate. She’s a free spirit. An unapologetic young woman who values her freedom and especially the choice to be at home with her father which, to her, is the epitome of happiness. But, of course, society won’t have it. A constant struggle between an older and a younger generation, society’s norms vs one’s needs and desires and, of course, the harsh reality of the passage of time and how we’re hopeless in the face of it. Throughout the movie, we are confronted with all of these things, and in a simple and rather quiet way, which makes it even more poignant. Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, Late Spring reveals itself to us slowly, calmly, letting us breathe and take our time getting to know these characters and their stories. A truly moving film and one of Japanese cinema’s greatest achievements.

Max Steiner and Now, Voyager (1942)

When you have Casablanca and Gone With the Wind under your belt, it seems strange that anybody would pick any other film score as their favorite. And yet, here it is: Now, Voyager is my favorite Max Steiner score. Now, I’ve already talked about Bette Davis’ incredible performance in the 1943 Best Actress Oscar nominees article, but the recent BFI season dedicated to her – if you live in London, don’t miss it! – made me think, again, about that magnificently wonderful score.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Now, Voyager (dir. Irving Rapper) tells the story of Charlotte Vale (Davis), a single and, by society’s standards, unattractive woman who, after freeing herself from the controlling claws of her mother (Gladys Cooper), finds the love she never had with architect Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). I mean… only Max Steiner could have scored that. And boy, did he! One of THE greatest weepies of all time, Now, Voyager is beautifully enveloped by that melancholic, ultra-romantic melody that thankfully pops up every ten minutes or so, much to everyone’s delight. Every heartbreak and every desolation that Charlotte goes through, every moment of joy and every moment of pain she feels comes with Steiner’s rousing masterpiece. And nobody understood this better than Bette. In 1939, during the making of Dark Victory (dir. Edmund Goulding), Bette stopped the climactic scene and asked Goulding if Steiner was going to score the picture. He said he didn’t know and asked what the big deal was. She famously said, ‘Either I’m going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is going to climb those stairs. But I’ll be goddamned if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!’. They did and she always referred to him as ‘my beloved Max Steiner.’ He scored 21 of her movies. And won an Oscar for Now, Voyager. Beautiful.